Amy Tan Personal Essay Samples

Amy Tan, author of the international best-seller novel, “Joy Luck Club”, continued to explore the relationships of Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters through her various published books such as “The Kitchen God’s Wife”, “The Hundred Secret Senses”, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” and her latest book titled, “Rules of the Game”.

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The Rules of the Game book took off from Tan’s “Joy Luck Club” novel portrayed by one of the primary character, Waverly Jong. Nicknamed MeiMei by her family, Waverly narrated her childhood experiences and perspectives as she is time and again influenced by her Chinese and American upbringing, providing conflict to the story as she try to navigate both traditional Chinese culture and the divergent melding culture of Chinese Americans.
When she was still young, Waverly was raised in a Chinese culture, surrounded by Chinese traditions and environment as her family live in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her mother, Mrs. Jong, prepared her in her journey towards adulthood through a valuable Chinese teaching called “the art of invisible strength”. This strategy can be used for winning arguments, gaining the respect of other people, and winning – at a later date, which Waverly found out – chess games.

At age six, Waverly learned to play chess by initially learning the rules by her own and by continuously playing with an old man named Lau Po who taught her complex chess strategies with Chinese names like “The Double Attack from the East and West Shores”, “Throwing Stones on a Drowning Man”, “The Sudden Meeting of the Clan”, “A Double Killing Without Blood”, and many others. The girl continued to study and join chess tournaments such that at age nine, she is already considered a national chess champion. Waverly is just 429 points away from attaining the grand master status.

As the story revolved around Waverly’s chess games, the teachings of her mother continued to guide her in her path. Through the “art of invisible strength”, Waverly slowly found and developed her own inner strength and self-control. She was also taught that “invisible strength” may also represent female power and the power of foreigners – as opposed to the local Americans where foreigners like the Chinese would have to learn the culture and live with it.

The power of women as an invisible strength is depicted in this story through the girl’s journey towards unconventional paths of using her ability to persuade, to shape, control events and to win against male-dominated arenas such as chess games. This symbolism is shown through a magazine message by Bobby Fischer, a chess grandmaster, that there will never be a woman grandmaster.

The power of foreigners were also shown here as the power to succeed in a land that is strangely different from what the girl and her family knew of. The conflict between two different cultures – Chinese and American – and the merging of the two for second-generation settlers (like Waverly) are narrated as little tidbits that add up as the girl grew up. Example of this is the picture-taking scene in front of Hong Sing’s restaurant where it is known that the live fish and turtles are doomed for cooking. Waverly and some of her friends were taken pictures by a Caucasian man as if they are strange people living in an exotic land. In Waverly’s first chess tournament, she played against a fifteen-year old boy who wrinkled his nose at her to show that he was not impressed. Another is the definition of “torture” of Mrs. Jong as opposed to its American meaning. She doesn’t really know what a “Chinese torture” is, but she knows that Chinese work hard, do business, medicine and paintings. She believes that Chinese people are not lazy as compared with Americans – such that “Chinese torture” is the best torture indeed.

The main conflict in the story revolved around Waverly’s chess winnings and her mother’s pride in her. She is slowly feeling embarrassed and a little angry with her mother for always telling people that she is her daughter who always won chess games. It came to a point when Waverly intentionally informed her mother not to use her so that she can show off to other people. This made her mother very angry with her that she was later ignored in the dinner table.

Waverly did not understand her mother’s pride of her achievements – which also extends to her family. Her mother’s influence and teachings to her is slowly readying the girl into a path that is full of rules and would need great strength from within. The girl is embarrassed by her mother’s pride, which made her hurt her mother. On the other hand, her mother might have other motives for teaching Waverly nuggets of wisdom based on Chinese culture. Definitely, she would not want to lose her little girl to the American way of thinking; influences that are not fully encouraged in a Chinese traditional culture.

The narration of the story was from the girl’s childhood perspective and did not refer to anything that would have happened when she is already an adult. It portrayed the various stages that the girl went through as she narrated that in the beginning, she was more influenced by her Chinese heritage. Later on, as she begun to play chess, she begun to change such that the merging of Chinese-American culture is slowly developing and gaining strength inside her; appreciating what both can do for her to be successful in life.

The conflict in identity is one of the main themes of the story. The teaching of the “art of invisible strength” and the various scenes narrated along the way all gave insights into the complexities of being a hyphenated American and yet, connected by blood and bonds to another culture and country.

Another major theme is the conflict between mothers and daughters, creating a powerful and moving story about irony, pain and sorrow, and the imperfect and many ways in which mothers and daughters love each other. Each of the primary characters tried to show their love for each other in their own ways and yet, surrounded by two cultures that sometimes bind and sometimes break, they each have to learn the ways on how to join each other’s aspirations and dreams and show true love against all odds.

The title, “Rules of the Game” is aptly given when the themes and central ideas are assessed. The story forces Waverly to discover what game she is playing, how to play it masterfully, what are the rules that she must follow in order to succeed and achieve in her goals. This chess game is a metaphor for her struggle with her Chinese mother. Waverly is the primary actor winning chess games but her mother is also playing her greatest game, which is to win against Americans and to prove the superiority of Chinese people against them.

In the final scene, Waverly was left alone to learn and discover what she should do next as she plotted her moves against her mother. The invisible strength that her mother taught her is already at play as she silently contemplated her next moves.

Another concept that can be seen in the story is the concept of feminism. Just like the story of Mulan, the “Rules of the Game” showed that adolescents learn to deal with crises by experience and as a result, they grow and mature. Girls like Waverly and Mulan also learned their place as women in addition to dealing with male resentment that arises when they succeed in their chosen paths. Both characters have inner strengths that were slowly developed and nurtured by their surroundings and experiences. These strengths were harnessed and learned so as to be utilized fully when needed.

Both girls were taught “the art of invisible strength” such that even when they are forced to conform to the society’s expectations of them, there is self-control and inner strength that guides them to be non-conformists, enabling them to find their own paths towards self-attainment. Mulan fought like a man for her country and Waverly played chess and won numerous games in a male-dominated arena. Both acted outside of the box and both succeeded and learned.

Waverly used her own strength, her mother’s teachings, and her own ability to think quickly to defeat her opponents time and again. She has to learn to win against her chess opponents and against her mother who is slowly pressuring her to “win more, lose less”. The story somehow represented the confusion and bewilderment that first generation Americans felt; how they are finally forced to turn away from their parents’ customs and traditions, heritage and culture, and try to find their own paths and succeed amidst numerous challenges and battles.

Amy Tan once again provided readers with a story that reaches across cultures and generation. Just like her “Joy Luck Club” novel, the “Rules of the Game” is clearly written and the lucidity of vision were presented in such a way that you appreciate each characters’ portrayal, understanding their motives and somehow emphatizing with them. The story inspires us to also have that “art of invisible strength” as each one of us plot our lives and strive to attain our visions and goals in life.


  • Amy Tan: Best Selling Author of the Joy Luck Club – A New York Times Bestseller.
  • English 111: Amy Tan, Rules of the Game.
  • Hooks, Amy. “How to be a Girl: Problems with Feminism in “Rules of the Game” and “Mulan”. (2002). 
  • Summaries and Commentaries: Waverly Jong – Rules of the Game.

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Lesson Plan

Exploring Language and Identity: Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue" and Beyond


Grades9 – 12
Lesson Plan TypeStandard Lesson
Estimated TimeFive 50-minute sessions
Lesson Author




In the essay “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan explains that she “began to write stories using all the Englishes I grew up with.” How these “different Englishes” or even a language other than English contribute to identity is a crucial issue for adolescents.

In this lesson, students explore this issue by brainstorming the different languages they use in speaking and writing, and when and where these languages are appropriate. They write in their journals about a time when someone made an assumption about them based on their use of language, and share their writing with the class. Students then read and discuss Amy Tan's essay “Mother Tongue.” Finally, they write a literacy narrative describing two different languages they use and when and where they use these languages.

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Discussion Questions for "Mother Tongue": Have students discuss Amy Tan's essay in small groups, using these discussion questions.

Literacy Narrative Assignment: This handout describes an assignment in which students write a literacy narrative exploring their use of different language in different settings.

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NCTE has long held a commitment to the importance of individual student's language choices. In the 1974 Resolution on the Students' Right to Their Own Language, council members "affirm[ed] the students' right to their own language-to the dialect that expresses their family and community identity, the idiolect that expresses their unique personal identity." The Council reaffirmed this resolution in 2003, "because issues of language variation and education continue to be of major concern in the twenty-first century to educators, educational policymakers, students, parents, and the general public."

Rebecca Wheeler and Rachel Swords assert that: "the child who speaks in a vernacular dialect is not making language errors; instead, she or he is speaking correctly in the language of the home discourse community. Teachers can draw upon the language strengths of urban learners to help students codeswitch-choose the language variety appropriate to the time, place, audience, and communicative purpose. In doing so, we honor linguistic and cultural diversity, all the while fostering students' mastery of the Language of Wider Communication, the de-facto lingua franca of the U.S."

This lesson focuses on ways to investigate the issues of language and identity in the classroom in ways that validate the many languages that students use. To help students gain competence in their ability to choose the right language usage for each situation, explorations of language and identity in the classroom are vital in raising students' awareness of the languages they use and the importance of the decisions that they make as they communicate with others.

Further Reading

Wheeler, Rebecca and Rachel Swords. "Codeswitching: Tools of Language and Culture Transform the Dialectally Diverse Classroom." Language Arts 81.6 (July 2004): 470-480.


Delpit, Lisa, and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy. 2002. The Skin that We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom. New York: New Press.

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Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.



Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.



Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.



Students whose first language is not English make use of their first language to develop competency in the English language arts and to develop understanding of content across the curriculum.



Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.


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Resources & Preparation


  • Copy of "Mother Tongue" by Amy Tan

  • Blue pens, Black pens, and pencils (optional)

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Grades   K – 12  |  Student Interactive  |  Organizing & Summarizing

Venn Diagram

This interactive tool allows students to create Venn diagrams that contain two or three overlapping circles, enabling them to organize their information logically.


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Instructional Plan


Students will

  • develop critical reading strategies.

  • discuss and evaluate the impact of language on identity formation and self-esteem of several writers.

  • expand their awareness of the role language plays in identity formation.

  • write their own literacy narratives.

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Session One

  1. Ask students to spend about ten minutes brainstorming a response to this prompt:

    What are the different "languages" you use? When and why? Consider both reading and writing, and don't forget about email! If you speak another language, include it (or possibly them if you know more than one).

  2. Encourage students to read their responses aloud.

  3. As they do, keep track on the board or on an overhead transparency of the different "languages" they are describing.

  4. Discuss the interaction of language usage and choice with audience and occasion by focusing on the examples the students have provided.

  5. For homework, ask students to write a journal entry that describes a time when someone made assumptions or even a judgment (negative or positive) about them based on their language usage (written or spoken). For those who say they've never had such an experience, suggest writing about a situation they've observed involving someone else.

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Session Two

  1. Open the class by asking volunteers to share their journal entries.

  2. Look for similarities among the experiences students describe, and discuss them as a group. Ask whether they notice stereotypes at work in the situations they describe.

  3. If students have access to the Internet, introduce Amy Tan by sharing audio and video clips of her talking and reading. Biographical information about Amy Tan can be found at

  4. Hand out copies of "Mother Tongue," and read the first two paragraphs aloud.

  5. Discuss why Tan opens with an explanation of what she is not.

  6. Read the next two paragraphs. Ask students to explain what Tan means by "different Englishes."

  7. Shift the discussion by asking why Tan speaks a "different English" with her mother than with her husband. Ask students to consider whether doing so is hypocritical.

  8. Assign the remainder of the essay as reading for homework.

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Session Three

  1. Divide students into groups, and assign one of the following questions to each group:

    • What point is Tan making with the example of her mother and the hospital?

    • What point is she making with the example of the stockbroker?

    • Tan says that experts believe that a person's "developing language skills are more influenced by peers," yet she thinks that family is more influential, "especially in immigrant families." Do you think family or peers exert more influence on a person's language?

    • Why does Tan discuss the SAT and her performance on it?

    • Why does she envision her mother as the reader of her novels?

  2. After about 15 minutes, ask each group to explain their responses to the questions. Encourage them to support their responses with specific reference to Tan's essay.

  3. Ask them to write notes and ideas in their journals using the Literacy Narrative Assignment. Stress that students are only gathering ideas. They are not creating the polished essay at this point.

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Session Four

  1. Open by discussing the assignment itself. Explain that a literacy narrative tells a specific story about reading or writing. Tan's article is essentially a literacy narrative because it discusses events about language use from her past (whether good or bad) and reflects on how those events influence her writing today.

  2. If desired, ask students to choose examples from the essay that connect writing from Tan's past to her present.

  3. Pass out copies of the Essay Rubric, and discuss the required components for the finished paper.

  4. Discuss the possibilities that students raised in their journal entries.

  5. To begin developing ideas further, ask students to use the Venn Diagram to map and compare the two "languages" that they will explore in their essays. Ask them to think creatively about the qualities and characteristics of the "languages."

  6. Allow students time to work on their literacy narratives in class.

  7. Assign a draft of the literacy narrative as homework; each student should bring his or her draft to the next class session (on a disk if you are working in a computer lab, or a printed copy otherwise).

  8. Additionally, if you are not working in a computer lab, ask students to bring a pencil, a black pen, and a blue pen to class.

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Session Five

  1. Begin with a discussion of the problems students are encountering with the assignment.

  2. Brainstorm ways to address one or two of the challenges.

  3. Remind students of the criteria for the assignment in the Literacy Narrative Essay Rubric. For the peer review, ask students to compare the drafts that they read to the characteristics described in the rubric.

  4. Explain the organization of the peer review:

    • Each student will read three papers, each written by someone else.

    • On the first paper that you read, make your comments with your black ink pen or in bold.

    • On the second paper, make your comments with the blue ink pen or in italics.

    • On the third paper, make your comments with your pencil or with underlined letters.

    • Finally, you'll return to your own essay and read over the comments.

  5. Arrange the students in small groups of four, having students rotate the drafts among group members as they read and respond. Adjust groupings as needed to accommodate the number of students in your class.

  6. Once students have read and responded to all the drafts, discuss questions, comments, and concerns students have as they prepare to revise.

  7. Encourage students to pay particular attention to comments that all of their peer readers agreed upon when reading their drafts.

  8. For homework, have students create their final, polished draft of the literacy narratives. Collect the papers at the beginning of the next session.

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  • To explore a more controversial response to language usage, students might read "If Black English Isn't a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is" by African American author James Baldwin. Written before the term "ebonics" came into usage, it is a brief but highly political argument about the link between language and identity and the damage school systems can cause by privileging one language (or dialect) over another. It can be found in the New York Times archives (29 July 1979, page E19).

  • Students also might examine a passage from the fiction of Cormac McCarthy, Sandra Cisneros, or another author who includes Spanish in his or her work—without translating it. What is the effect on a reader who does not know Spanish? What might be the purpose of an author making the decision to write whole sections in Spanish?

  • To pursue the link between power and language, students might read the poem "Parsley" by Rita Dove. It explores the historical incident in which the Dominical Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo used the pronunciation of the word "parsley" to separate Dominicans who speak Spanish from the persecuted Haitians who speak a French Creole (a topic Edwidge Danticat takes up in her novel The Farming of Bones).

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Observe students for their participation during the exploration and discussion of Tan’s essay and their own language use. In class discussions and conferences, watch for evidence that students are able to describe specific details about their language use. Monitor students’ progress and process as they work on their lilteracy narratives. For formal assessment, use the Literacy Narrative Rubric. Ask students to complete the Student Self-Assessment to reflect on their exploration of language and their literacy narratives.

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Related Resources


Grades   9 – 12  |  Lesson Plan  |  Standard Lesson

Dialect Detectives: Exploring Dialect in Great Expectations

Great Expectations is rich in dialogue and in the dialect of the working class and the poor of Victorian England. What does Dickens reveal about his characters using dialect?


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Grades   K – 12  |  Student Interactive  |  Organizing & Summarizing

Venn Diagram

This interactive tool allows students to create Venn diagrams that contain two or three overlapping circles, enabling them to organize their information logically.


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Grades   8 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  February 9

Author Matt de la Peña was born today.

Students use an essay by de la Peña as a model for writing their own literacy autobiography.


Grades   9 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  August 5

Author Amy Tan was born today in 1952

Students watch an excerpt of an interview with Tan and apply some of her principles to writing a story of their own.


Grades   9 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  August 2

James Baldwin was born today in 1924.

Students read and respond to an essay by Baldwin, commenting on the contemporary resonance of his ideas.


Grades   9 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  February 9

Author Alice Walker was born on February 9, 1944.

After students read the novel The Color Purple, dialect is discussed and students write a short piece of fiction or poetry using the dialect of their peer group.


Grades   9 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  May 1

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is in May!

Students consider the portrayal of Asians in popular culture by exploring images from classic and contemporary films and comparing them to historical and cultural reference materials.


Grades   9 – 12  |  Calendar Activity  |  December 9

Author Joel Chandler Harris was born in 1848.

Students study how regional dialect is written phonetically by reading a segment of Harris' story, as well as two others, and compare them using the Interactive Venn Diagram.


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Grades   K – 8  |  Professional Library  |  Journal

Codeswitching: Tools of Language and Culture Transform the Dialectally Diverse Classroom

This article shows how to affirm and draw on the dialect diversity of students to foster the learning of Standard English.


Grades   8 – 12  |  Professional Library  |  Book

Amy Tan in the Classroom: "The art of invisible strength"

Offers high school teachers an activity-based approach to teaching the works of Amy Tan, especially The Joy Luck Club and The Opposite of Fate.


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